If you were planning to run a revolution from a post office now, you’d have to take a number and wait in line. The nodes of cultural communication as well as of social power have shifted since 1916, more democratic in some aspects, infinitely more entrenched and imperial in others. The editors’ timely purpose in this General Post Office of a book is to offer a one-stop-shop of Scottish perspectives on the Easter Rising, exploring not just forgotten dimensions of the Irish struggle and the Scottish part in it, but more generally a set of what Alan Riach sharply identifies as ‘elective affinities’ between two countries so inextricably bound together by culture, political differentiations from London politics and by shared internal divisions. All of this with at its heart a meditation on why a century ago Irish nationalism went down a violent and ultimately tragic route, exiting its imperial phase via a one-sided compromise that simply perpetuated inequality and violence, while Scotland a century later is moving through devolution and fiscal autonomy toward independence without so much as a shot being fired or a bridge blown. There are, of course, answers to this non-rhetorical question, some of them bound up in the contrast between an essentially agrarian society and a rapidly industrialised one, some of them going back to different experiences of imperial policing and ownership, some of them more airily ‘cultural’.
Irish and Scots history have always been told as much in contentious story and song, personal reminiscence and polemic as they have in orthodox historiography, but what Kirsty Lusk’s and Willy Maley’s book suggests, pace the testimony of some of their contributors, is that these democratic and vernacular approaches to a shared history have been quite fully assimilated and even colonised by the academy. James Kelman’s assertion – in an essay that marshals the philosophical perspective of George Elder Davie to frame the background of one of the Rising’s key protagonists – that ‘Radical history remains marginalised within our culture’ is both resoundingly self-evident and plain untrue.
Kelman is present here as an essayist rather than fiction writer, but Lusk and Maley don’t simply invite us to queue for stamps and licences. They’ve set out a broad range of goods and services, calling on fiction, poetry, literary criticism and memoir as well as historical analysis. A straggling line of contributors addresses the headline topic as efficiently and eclectically as one might expect from a book whose main drawbacks are an absence, apart from a laborious timeline, of unifying narrative – is it really safe to assume that every reader will be familiar with what happened on and around Sackville Street on Easter Monday 1916? – and a repetitious fixation on just the Rising’s key players.
It bears repeating that among a leadership that reflected the pan-Celtic and diaspora dimensions of Irish nationalism, James Connolly was not just a Scot by birth, but an Edinburgh Scot of a particular cast and caste, committed to democratic socialism as much as he was to Irish nationalism. Connolly’s execution, his broken body tied to a chair, is the Rising’s pieta, and has perhaps overshadowed the living Connolly’s complex relation to the cause that swallowed him. Raised in the Cowgate’s ‘Little Ireland’, he grew up watching the quality breathe better air on George IV Bridge above his head. Contributor after contributor attests to Edinburgh’s denial of paternity. An excerpt from Irvine Welsh’s Bedroom Secrets of the Master Chefs reflects on Connolly’s denied identity as a socialist. Maley teases out the same story more fully. The late Ian Bell claims the closest connection as Connolly’s grand-nephew, and remembers the moment when an unsanctioned plaque was belatedly installed near the great man’s birthplace. The original one was torn down by angry Loyalists.
More obviously neglected figures are brought forward, most notably the young Margaret Skinnider from Coatbridge, who saw heroic action during the Rising, but also offered a trenchant awareness of the social reality of Scotland’s cities: ‘… Glasgow is two fifths Irish. Indeed there are as many Irish there as in Dublin itself and the spirit among the younger generation is perhaps more intense because we are a little to one side and thus afraid of becoming outsiders.’ Given her contribution, the role of the Cumann na mBann and the Daughters of Erin, and the revisionist material set out by Alison O’Malley-Younger there isn’t much foundation to the more casually feminist notion that Irish nationalism was a male club. On the contrary, it often elevated its female adherents, and most notoriously Countess Markievicz, to undeservedly heroic status. The romantic and poetic dimensions of the Rising cannot be denied, even if WB Yeats had never coined that unhelpful line about a ‘terrible beauty’. Sorley MacLean’s ‘Ard-Mhusaeum na h’Éireann’ (‘National Museum of Ireland’) is a complex attempt to take on and debunk the Yeatsian strain. Connolly’s stained shirt is a holy relic turned into museum heritage. Connolly himself is fighting in the Post Office, but also ‘glanadh shràidean an Dùn Èideann’ (‘cleaning streets in Edinburgh’), which is not bathos, but the main point, for the brave action of the Easter fighters failed to ignite a reciprocal struggle elsewhere, just as the Bolshevik rising a year later failed to light more than a weak powder trail of revolution across Europe.
A number of essays focus on how the Scottish contribution to the Easter Rising, whether in fact or in more abstract solidarity, was both substantial and rooted in social conditions in the neighbouring country. Shaun Kavanagh’s study of Irish republicanism and Sinn Fein in Greenock is particularly fascinating. Richard B Macready does similar work on the Dundee connection. Michael Shaw, like Kavanagh, also concentrates on the now overlooked concept of Home Rule, which some pre-Easter 1916 regarded as an evolutionary inevitability interrupted by hasty violence. The discussion also has to negotiate the uncomfortable recognition that Scottish soldiery played a major role in suppressing the Rising and its aftermath.
The more personal contributions, by Phil Kelly and Aaron Kelly, by Kevin McKenna, and under the aspect of a long personal struggle, by Billy Kay, all add significant dimensions to the debate about Scotland vis-à-vis Irish nationalism, and Irish nationalism vis-à-vis its Scots equivalent. The sense of a distinct Scots-Irish identity as an actual and active force is made with gentle directness by McKenna, while Kevin Rooney considers the singing of ‘rebel’ songs against the background of the disastrously misconceived Offensive Behaviour at Football (Scotland) Act, which has politicised and debased the culture of remembrance and self-identification in the interest of a few cosmetic prosecutions, and which represents a direct assault not so much on Celtic or Rangers fans, republicans or Loyalists, but on working class football fans whose ritualised constructions of Irish/Scottish history are usually more accurate and inflected than the official versions. To this extent, at least, Kelman is right. This is territory more fully explored elsewhere by Stuart Waiton of Abertay University, who sees the Act as an infringement of free speech and a spur to a new kind of sectarian ‘offence’ based on a flimsily therapeutic model.
Though Scotland and the Easter Rising is an editorial shambles, it has a rich consistency of tone and Owen Dudley Edwards brings it all together with an essay that might in different form have served better as introduction than as afterword. In it he invokes the Irish past as a heuristic for the Scottish future, but only if the ideals represented are sustained without their obvious ‘agency for hurt’. A certain middle-class, middlebrow perspective on the Easter Rising holds it up as a stern vindication of how much more sensible the Scottish path has been, which somewhat misses the point. Dudley Edwards and the other writers here render that position finally untenable, but keep alive the heuristic. There was a predictable and nicely orchestrated chorus of protest when a leading historian called for the Easter Rising to be marked and even celebrated. Here are the reasons why, variously expressed, sometimes redundantly repeated, occasionally enigmatic, but absolutely and inescapably of the moment. Our common moment. Our number is about to be called.
Scotland AND the Easter Rising: Fresh Perspectives on 1916
Edited by Kirsty Lusk & Willy Maley
Luath Press, £12.99, ISBN: 978-1910745366, PP240